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Insurer Sues Google in Alabama Over Unflattering Search Results

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An insurer is hoping to use an Alabama state law governing deceptive trade practices to stop Google from prominently displaying negative websites about the company.

American Income Life Insurance Co. has filed suit in the Jefferson County Alabama Circuit Court charging that Google, along with several websites, are violating state law by “intentionally disparaging the goods, services, or business of the plaintiff by false and misleading representations of fact.”

American Income is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the McKinney, Texas-based Torchmark Corp. and specializes in selling life insurance and other supplemental policies to labor unions, credit unions and associations.

At issue in the suit are several websites that appear on the first Google page of search results about the company and that contain contents criticizing the insurer’s business practices.

One website, scam.com, appears under the heading of “American Income Life is a Scam.” Another website, pissedconsumer.com, appears to contain posts from former and prospective employees that claim the insurer allegedly engages in unscrupulous hiring practices, including inflating income figures and misstating the number of hours employees are expected to work.

In a letter to Google executives, Alabama attorney Richard Baxley said the sites are scams that are targeted to hurt the insurer by making anonymous charges under the guise of being “whistleblowers” serving a public service. As a result, he said, the company has sustained significant financial damage.

“These losses already amount to millions of dollars,” said Baxley. “And we expect the magnitude of these losses –and their direct causal link to Google’s page on placement—to climb.”

Google posts search results based on a page rank or “black box” algorithm that uses the number of requests for a particular website and other proprietary information to list sites based on their content value.

Baxley said that the anonymous websites have figured out how to game Google’s algorithm to ensure that their sites rank high in search results. He said because of that the company is losing prospective employees who decide not to work for the insurer based on faulty information.

“We are continuing to interview applicants that have been scheduled to appear for interviews, but fail to do so,” said Baxley, a former Alabama state attorney general.

Although American Income says the damages from the Google postings run into the millions of dollars in lost revenue and a reduction in potential employees, the company appears to be more concerned about the placement of the negative websites, which they concede are protected under the First Amendment, than it is in receiving any actual damages.

Before filing suit, Baxley proposed a compromise that he said would satisfy the insurer. He called on Google to change the order of the search results so that the links to the negative websites would be below the second page of search results or come after the 25th search result.

Google, however, rejected the proposal, saying that it only provides access to websites and therefore, it is not their responsibility to remove any allegedly defamatory material from its search results. As a result, Google stated, American Life needed to contact the websites directly and any changes would be reflected in the search results.

“Google provides access to publicly available webpages, but does not control the content of any of the billions of the pages currently in the index,” Google said.

Google is claiming immunity from the lawsuit under section 230(c) of the 1996 federal Communications Decency Act, which holds that “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another content provider.”

Baxley, however, is claiming that the Communications Decency Act doesn’t apply in this case since it involves deceptive trade practices as opposed to a defamation action.

“American Income Life Insurance Co. is not a scam, and is, in fact, a reputable and upstanding business corporation engaged in the lawful business of selling insurance policies,” said Baxley in papers filed with the court. “It is not engaged in any of the disparaging and/or misleading representations of fact alleged by defendant Google Inc. and the fictitious defendants via their seller-assisted, search engine marketing plan.”

The courts have consistently ruled in Google’s favor in similar cases.

In November 2011, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeal sided with Google when a construction firm sued the search engine for posting an anonymous review criticizing the construction firm’s work.

“The district court properly dismissed plaintiffs’ action, because plaintiffs seek to impose liability on Google for content created by a third party,” opined the court.

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